One thing Gary Waters won't do this year is spend much time fretting over preseason predictions that don't figure to be very flattering.
Picked 13th in the 14-team Big East a year ago, Rutgers reached the NIT finals for the first time in school history and recorded the program's first 20-win season since 1983.
So if the forecast is for more gloom and doom this winter -- and with a guard-heavy team that lacks a proven frontcourt presence, that's probably going to be the case -- the Scarlet Knights' fourth-year coach will take it in stride and do what he does best -- somehow get his team to overachieve. "I don't think it will be as bad as it looks on paper for us because of the experience we have at guard," said Waters. "My feeling is that success starts with the guard play, and we're solid there."
Waters said he will tinker with his offense, tailoring it to his personnel. Rutgers will run more motion and do more screening than it has in the past. Though inexperienced up front, the Knights do have some wide bodies to throw around, and Waters intends for them to flex their muscles.
FRONTCOURTWaters was hoping for a big year from junior Adrian Hill to help compensate for the graduation losses of Sean Axani and Herve Lamizana. But those hopes were dashed when Hill blew out his knee in a pickup game in the spring and had to undergo ACL surgery. He may not be ready until the late fall now -- and that's a best-case scenario.
"It's a major blow," Waters said.
Hill's absence will force Waters to turn to freshman Ollie Bailey at one of the two starting frontcourt spots.
Sophomore Byron Joynes may have to start as well. He struggled through a disappointing debut season that saw him average just 1.9 points. At 6-foot-9, 270, Joynes provides plenty of size, but the former high school teammate of Carmelo Anthony still seems to be more about potential than production.
Last-minute low post help could come from junior college transfer Jimmie Inglis, but he has some visa issues to resolve before being declared eligible. If cleared to play, Inglis, a native of St. Lucia in the West Indies, will start alongside Bailey and reduce the stress on the frontcourt. The only other possible contributor up front is 6-11, 220-pound freshman Dan Waterstradt, who Waters would prefer to redshirt.
BACKCOURTSenior Ricky Shields dipped his toe into the NBA waters, found the reception chilly and decided to return to Rutgers after averaging a team-high 15.5 points per game last year. He's one of the reasons Waters is so optimistic about his backcourt.
Promising freshman Manny Quezada is the only true point guard on the roster, but Rutgers got by with Marquis Webb handling the position last year while being spelled by Quincy Douby and Juel Wiggan.
Waters hopes Douby can pick up where he left off at the end of last season, when he was a catalyst in Rutgers' march to the NIT championship game. A productive scorer off the bench -- he made the Big East's All-Rookie team despite not starting a game during the regular season -- Douby was moved into the starting lineup during the NIT run and flourished in the role. He wound up as the Knights' most accurate 3-point (.426) and free throw (.826) shooter.
Webb, though a better fit as a swingman, was solid at the point last year and made surprisingly few mistakes for a freshman. Wiggan, a career role player, has been a useful sub who can play both spots in the backcourt and be depended on for some scoring off the bench.
FINAL ANALYSISIf Inglis is cleared to play, the Knights should be competitive in the Big East. But the reality is that Rutgers is likely to take a step back during the 2004-05 season. Despite what should be solid play from the backcourt, there are just too many issues up front to expect this team to contend for a spot in the NCAA tournament.
Another trip to the NIT, however, is a distinct possibly. And with a strong recruiting class on the way -- Waters has already secured four verbal commitments for the November signing period -- the Knights should be in position to shine in 2005-06, when the Big East expands to 16 teams.